When I first read Bent Flyvbjerg's work, I was struck with a kind of profound gratitude. ‘Ah,’ I thought, ‘now here's something I can actually use.’ For those of us undertaking collaborative research with our neighbours or with social movements, phronesis can feel like a longed-for ally, a companion in a struggle that can sometimes feel isolating. The questions he raises are familiar to engaged academics trying to bridge analysis, social action and a commitment to scholarship for social change: how do we develop ‘wisdom that works’ in specific social contexts, while tackling complex global problems?; how do we create mechanisms for uncovering and validating collective, real-world knowledge?; how do we make informed and democratic decisions about critical issues in the face of contingency, dissent, difference and change? Phronesis is useful because it gives us permission to finally abandon the failed project of producing a social science focused on universal truth, broad generalizability, prediction and a stance of disinterested neutrality. Better yet, it challenges us to invent a better social science, one that connects research to practical reasoning and social action. I am inspired by the challenge levied by Making Social Science Matter (2001), and the wealth of thoughtful scholarship it has generated. Flyvbjerg's reinterpretation of phronesis opens up intellectual room in crowded disciplinary halls, providing vital public space to explore knowledge that matters.
One aspect of phronetic social science that has been underexplored, however, is its close links to feminist epistemology and sociology of knowledge. After getting over the initial pleasure of recognition, my next response to Flyvbjerg's work was puzzlement. I felt like I was standing between two beloved friends at a party, gaping, wondering, ‘how is it possible that the two of you haven't met?’ The resonances between phronetic social science and current feminist scholarship into how knowledge is created and legitimated are obvious, varied and powerful.